Jack Nitzsche – Wizard of the 60s Pop Sound

This very talented artist served a key role in the sound of 1960s rock & roll. As an important behind-the-scenes figure in popular music for 40 years, he worked as an arranger, producer, and songwriter. He had an unparalleled grasp of contemporary music and its possibilities.

The ratio of rock superstars to genuine arranging-production legends is at least a hundred-to-one. This artist was one of the greatest of his era, a wizard of the charts and mixing console, first coming to prominence in the music business in the late 1950s as the right-hand-man of producer Phil Spector.

He went on to work extensively with the Rolling Stones (who sang about him as “Jumpin Jack Flash“). Then he worked with Neil Young as another very significant musical partner, bringing a trained musician’s know-how to bear on the work of more instinctive rockers in a way that complemented and mutually deepened their work.

Beyond pop music, he would develop a solid career as a prolific film composer and arranger of nearly three dozen movie scores. He won a Song Of The Year Oscar in 1983 for co-writing “Up Where We Belong” (from An Officer and a Gentleman, sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.).

Bernard Alfred “Jack” Nitzsche
(22 April 1937 – 25 August 2000)

Born in Chicago, Illinois and raised on a farm in Newaygo, Michigan, Jack Nitzsche began his musical life as most composers seem to do – taking piano lessons as a child and then going on to study music at college, in his case Holywood’s Westlake College of Music. He then moved to Los Angeles, California in 1955 with ambitions of becoming a jazz saxophonist.

1963 He found work copying musical scores, where he met Sonny Bono, who was the head of A&R at Specialty Records. 

Certainly he had what must have been a stimulating introduction to the record business – working as a music copyist for Sonny Bono. From there he went to Original Sound Records for a short while where he became responsible for looking after the ‘musical development’ of Preston Epps who had just had a hit single called ‘Bongo Rock‘.

But even by now Jack Nitzsche was emerging as a very capable if not highly distinctive arranger, able to write ‘musical backgrounds’ for a variety of styles and with a flourish and imagination that distinguished the most mediocre material.

His earliest work included arrangements for records by Terry Day (alias Terry Melcher), Frankie Laine, Doris Day, Jimmy Griffin, Dorsey Burnette, and Merry Clayton.

Here is Nitzsche’s arrangement of Doris Day’s “Move Over, Darling” which was a successful single on the pop charts of the time.
1963 His own instrumental composition “The Lonely Surfer” became a minor hit
For another pop instrumental, Jack also did a big-band arrangement of Link Wray’s “Rumble“.

But some sort of turning point occurred when Nitzsche met perhaps the most celebrated pop record producer of the sixties, Phil Spector. From Original Sound Records Jack went to work with Lee Hazlewood and Lester Sill and it was through Sill that he eventually met Spector and began to collaborate with him.

Enter Phil Spector…

Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche
Their first record together (Spector as producer and Nitzsche as arranger) was The Crystals’ ‘He’s A Rebel‘, and that was in 1962.

From then until early 1964 he worked on something like 20 records that appeared on Spector’s Philles label, and in 1963 alone he produced and/or arranged 26 chart records, 13 for Spector and the rest for other people.

1963 – Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, Phil Spector
Another example of the work Nitzsche did with Spector features Darlene Love in the R&B hit, “Today I met the boy I’m Gonna Marry

As the scope of his work began to widen, so Jack’s own particular talents began to flourish. Remember the classic riff to “Needles & Pins‘ sung by Jackie De Shannon, The Searchers, Bobby Vee, and Gary Lewis amongst others? Well Jack wrote that. In fact he co-wrote the whole song with Sonny Bono as well as several others with Jackie De Shannon and ended up arranging most of her records during 1963 and 64.

At this point in his career Jack’s activities become so numerous and diverse that it becomes practically impossible to keep track of the sessions he did and the people he worked for or with. Suffice to say that he has been in constant demand ever since either as a producer, arranger, or composer.

He arranged the immortal ‘River Deep Mountain High‘ by Ike & Tina Turner (one of the last records he did with Spector before Philles folded)

It is important to note that although Nitzsche was instrumental in helping build Spector’s Wall of Sound, he was able to learn from that experience to develop a spacious arrangement/production knack that was nearly [the Wall’s] sonic opposite. Arrangements were lush and full, yet the sound of various instruments was not all mashed together.

Nitzsche went on to work closely with West Coast session musicians such as Leon Russell, Roy Caton, Glen Campbell, Carol Kaye, and Hal Blaine. This very professional combination of artists created studio backing music for many sixties pop recordings by various artists such as The Beach Boys and The Monkees. Collectively, this group, faceless behind the recordings, became known as The Wrecking Crew

[You may also see our information that details work of The Wrecking Crew under this Post: Session Musicians / A-Team / Funk Brothers / Wrecking Crew / Swampers]

In 1964 Nitzsche organized all the music for The T.A.M.I. Show television special. Here’s a sample featuring Lesley Gore.

Working with the T.A.M.I. Show is significant because that was how Jack met and became involved with The Rolling Stones. The Stones became firm friends with Jack on their first American tour and he subsequently worked on nine of their albums (an experience that he said changed his approach to working In the studio).

Jack went on to add his keyboard textures to their albums The Rolling Stones, Now! (or The Rolling Stones No. 2 in the UK), Out of Our Heads, Aftermath and Between the Buttons.

He also played keyboard on some of the Rolling Stones’  hit singles: “Paint It, Black” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together“. He also developed and arranged the lush choral background for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want“.

Fact: The Rolling Stones’ song “Jumping Jack Flash” is about Jack Nitzsche.

One of the most curious albums released by Nitzsche under his own name was an offbeat experiment in orchestral arrangement and composition, Chopin ’66.

For Chopin ’66, Nitzsche took ten pieces by the Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin and gave them new arrangements that staked out a middle ground between traditional symphonic approach and a sound that had more to do with contemporary pop music.

Jack Nitzsche and Neil Young

Some of Nitzsche’s most enduring rock productions were conducted in collaboration with Neil Young, beginning with his production and arrangement of Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting To Fly“, considered by many critics to be a touchstone of the psychedelic era.

In 1968, with Ry Cooder he produced tracks 5, 6 and 9 of Neil Young’s eponymously titled solo debut album.

A stamp of Nitzsche’s work at that time: a few of the songs from the Harvest album are heavily orchestrated, such as ‘There’s a World

Even as Neil Young’s style veered from the baroque to rootsy hard rock, he continued to work with Nitzsche on some of his most commercially successful solo recordings, most notably Harvest.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Neil Young, upper left, Jack Nitzsche on right)

Nitzsche played electric piano with Neil Young & Crazy Horse throughout 1970 (a representative performance can be heard on the Live at the Fillmore East album) and went on to produce Crazy Horse’s sans-Young debut album a year later.

The careers of Nitzsche and Young have criss-crossed a number of times over the years – from Young’s Buffalo Springfield to his last solo tour which featured Nitzsche on back-up piano.

But Nitzsche’s words had closed the door on the possibility of any future collaboration. “His lyrics are so dumb and pretentious.” scowled Nitzsche… 

I mean anyone who would write lyrics like ‘Someone and someone were down by the pond, looking for something to plant in the lawn’ or ‘Are you ready for the country?’!

The tour was torture. Everyone in the band was bored to death with those terrible guitar solos. Neil would turn and face the band with this stupid grimace while he was playing, and I would nearly roll on the stage laughing. He takes himself so seriously.

You know, Neil presented a different image…he appeared to be a really hip, of the people guy. But it turned out to be bullshit. Neil Young is the biggest offender of all of them – his whole lifestyle is the millionaire who doesn’t give a shit about anything, about anybody but himself. He doesn’t even write well. But everybody’s fooled because they think they should like him – I mean if you don’t like Neil Young, how funky are you?

1970 also saw Nitzsche working with Ry Cooder on slide guitar as Nitzsche produced the solo single by Mick Jagger called “Memo From Turner” from the soundtrack of the film “Performance“. This reached #32 on the UK singles chart.

This project was recorded in Los Angeles in early 1970, and used the vocal track of an earlier, slow version of “Memo“. The tape of Jagger’s earlier vocals was sent to Jack Nitzsche, where all music parts where recorded by Ry Cooder on slide guitar, Russ Titelman (guitar), Randy Newman (piano), Jerry Scheff (bass) and Gene Parsons (drums).

Nitzsche arranged the classic ‘Sister Morphine‘ by Marianne Faithfull, co-wrote and produced ‘Gone Dead Train‘ by Randy Newman, arranged The Tubes ‘Don’t Touch Me There‘, and arranged the strings on Tim Buckley’s first album.

Jack Nitzsche won a lot of love at Warner Reprise for his outstanding work handling the orchestral duties for Neil Young’s albums, and the 1972 album Harvest was a blockbuster in its time.

On the strength of an extra, original Nitzsche piece recorded during the sessions for Harvest — imaginatively titled “#1”  — Reprise gave Nitzsche the go ahead to record an all-orchestral album, which resulted in St. Giles Cripplegate, a project that takes its name after the London church in which it was recorded.

Circulated in no more than 2,000 copies initially, St. Giles Cripplegate has long been unavailable, and this Collector’s Choice Music issue appears to be its first release on CD. The six pieces here represent the most ambitious statement Nitzsche made as a serious composer apart from his work as an arranger and film composer, and one wishes it were a little better than it is.

While Nitzsche was prolific and hard working throughout the 1970s, he began to suffer from depression and problems connected with substance abuse. After he castigated Young in a drunken 1974 interview, the two men became estranged for several years and would only collaborate sporadically thereafter.

His first wife was blue-eyed soul singer Gracia Ann May; they divorced in 1974.

Later that year, he was dropped from Reprise Records’ roster after recording a scathing song criticizing executive Mo Ostin. This culminated in his arrest for a violent assault with a handgun on longtime girlfriend Carrie Snodgress, formerly Young’s companion, in 1979.

Mink DeVille (1974–86) was a rock band known for its association with early punk rock bands at New York’s CBGB nightclub and for being a showcase for the music of Willy DeVille.  DeVille wanted Jack Nitzsche to produce some of his recordings.  He says,

In the beginning I saw Mink DeVille as a hard-edged rock and roll band, and I wanted the Nitzsche who’d produced “Memo from Turner” (off the Performance soundtrack) and the great first Crazy Horse album… The sad truth is that it took one phone call, and even that was sheer luck—or maybe divine providence. I mentioned my mission while chatting with friend and Del Shannon manager Dan Bourgoise, who responded ‘Jack? I can put you in touch with him.’ Two days later the elusive producer was sitting in my office. I put on a live recording and after the first song, the band’s version of Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms of Mine,’ Nitzsche motioned for me to stop the tape. ‘When do we start?’ he said. They had him. And that was the whole of it, plain and simple. I didn’t get Jack Nitzsche. The voice of Willy DeVille did.

Nitzsche produced three Mink DeVille albums beginning in the late 1970s: Cabretta (1977), Return to Magenta (1978), and Coup de Grâce (1981). Nitzsche said that Willy DeVille was the best singer he had ever worked with.

On Return to Magenta, Willy DeVille and producers Nitzsche and Steve Douglas employed lavish string arrangements on several songs. Dr. John played keyboards and, Douglas played saxophone.

Pianist Bobby Leonards said about Return to Magenta,

Willy had wanted to do an album much like the first one. He wanted to team up with Nitzsche to write some tunes, but Nitzsche wasn’t interested in doing that. All he wanted to do was produce. He was there to help. He didn’t actually say no. He said, ‘Hey we’re wasting valuable time and you don’t have a lot of material. The record companies want you to produce a product every year, ten to twelve songs, but nobody writes that way. You do a record when you’ve got something. Don’t record unless you’re ready to record.'” He added, “I went back and erased most of my tracks, but some of mine are still on there”

Here’s a video that looks like it was filmed sometime in the mid-90s a few years before Nietzsche died. It’s from the documentary Fools Upon The Hill directed & produced by Julien Gaurichon of which there is no information on the Internet that I can find.

In this video, DeVille and the producer of three of his albums, the legendary Jack Nietzsche, are in a hotel room in New York City and Willy is serenading his dear friend. It’s a lovely, intimate, scene in which you can see how close the two artists were and the creative energy that existed between them. Willy sings John Hiatt’s “The Way We Make A Broken Heart” and “Carmelita” by Warren Zevon.

In the 1970s Nitzsche began to concentrate more on working in the field of movie sound tracks, rather than pop music, and would become one of the most prolific film orchestrators in Hollywood, with nearly three dozen movie scores to his credit.

He wrote the score for ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest‘ , this being probably his most famous work. But he also created excellent sound tracks for ‘Performance’, ‘Blue Collar’, ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Heroes’.

Some obituaries of Nitzsche reported that he and Buffy Sainte-Marie were briefly married in the early 1980s. He won an Academy Award for Best Song for co-writing with Buffy Sainte-Marie and Will Jennings “Up Where We Belong” from 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman.

In 1983, he married Canadian/First Nations folk singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The sound track from Stand By Me (1986) provides a great example of the lush treatment Nitzsche could give a piece of music such that it was there without drawing too much attention away from the movie.

Some of Nitzsche’s most notable film scores include: the Monkees movie Head, the theme music from Village of the Giants (recycling an earlier single, “The Last Race“), and the distinctive soundtracks for Performance, The Exorcist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hardcore (1979), The Razor’s Edge (1984), and Starman (also 1984).

In the 1990s, he was frequently seen once more in the company of Carrie Snodgress.

At the start of this decade, he scored Revenge (1990). On Revenge he worked with Joanna St. Claire, who wrote, recorded and produced the original song “Are You Ready” for the film’s soundtrack.

His intensive output declined somewhat during the rest of the decade. In the mid-1990s, a clearly inebriated Nitzsche was seen in an episode of the reality show COPS, being arrested in Hollywood after brandishing a gun at some youths who had stolen his hat. In attempting to explain himself to the arresting officers he is heard exclaiming that he was an Academy Award winner.

In 1997, he expressed interest in producing a comeback album for Link Wray, although this never materialized due to their mutually declining health.

Nitzsche suffered a stroke in 1998 that effectively ended his career. He died in Hollywood’s Queen of Angels Hospital in 2000 of cardiac arrest brought on by a recurring bronchial infection.

Jack Nitzsche was, by all accounts, an unassuming and modest fellow – hence his ‘back-room’ image and the regrettable lack of detailed information concerning his remarkably influential career.

Here is a (2005) CD you can get: The Jack Nitzsche Story – Hearing is Believing: 1962 – 1979


1963: The Lonely Surfer
1964: Dance To The Hits Of The Beatles
1966: Chopin ’66
1972 : St. Giles Cripplegate
1978 : OSR Blue Collar
1980 : Promises “Promises[disambiguation needed]” – Capitol Unreleased in U.S.
1984 : OSR The Razor’s Edge
1991 : OSR The Indian Runner with David Lindley


Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)
Village of the Giants (1965)
Performance (1970)
Greaser’s Palace (1972)
Sticks and Bones (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
Moment to Moment (1975)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Heroes (1977)
Blue Collar (1978)
Hardcore (1979)
When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (1979)
Cruising (1980)
Heart Beat (1980)
Cutter and Bone, a.k.a. Cutter’s Way (1981)
Personal Best (1982)
Cannery Row (1982)
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Without a Trace (1983)
Breathless (1983)
Windy City (1984)
The Razor’s Edge (1984)
Starman (1984)
The Jewel of the Nile (1985)
Stripper (1986)
9½ Weeks (1986)
Stand by Me (1986)
The Whoopee Boys (1986)
Streets of Gold (1986)
The Seventh Sign (1988)
Next of Kin (1989)
Revenge (1990)
The Last of the Finest (1990)
The Hot Spot (1990)
Mermaids (1990)
The Indian Runner (1991)
Blue Sky (1994)
The Crossing Guard (1995)


4 thoughts on “Jack Nitzsche – Wizard of the 60s Pop Sound”

  1. Hey I am having a tough time finding the correct lyrics to an obscure song co-written by Jack and Russ Titleman. It’s Carolay from The Original Crazy Horse LP (1971). Can anyone help me with this?. Who has the original lyrics document? Thanks in advance.


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